The godfather of blending

The godfather of blending

Gavin. D. Smith examines the legacy of the philanthropic Andrew Usher and sons, blending pineers

Production | 16 Nov 2002 | Issue 27 | By Gavin Smith

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On 23rd August of this year, 22 of Scotland’s leading whisky blenders assembled at Kyndal’s Glasgow headquarters, each bearing a sample of specially blended 16-year-old whisky. The samples were duly vatted together and just one bottle of the resultant ‘superblend’ produced.This collector’s item is to be auctioned in Glasgow at McTear’s specialist spring whisky sale, and according to Kyndal’s Master Blender Richard Paterson, whose brainchild this venture was, it may fetch in the region of £20,000. Paterson notes “Never before in the history of Scotch whisky has there ever been such a large vatting of so many master blenders!”The reason for this exercise was to celebrate of one of Paterson’s whisky heroes, the ‘godfather’ of blending, Andrew Usher, and its date was chosen partly because the first written record of Scotch whisky refers to either the 23rd or 24th August 1494.When the development of whisky blending is discussed, certain high-profile names are included. Without Messrs Dewar, Buchanan, Mackie et al, blended whisky might never have become the global drink it is today. However, the vital role played by the father and son partnership of Andrew Ushers Senior and Junior is rarely given the prominence it merits.The Usher family had its origins in the Scottish Borders, and Andrew Senior was the youngest of 12 children, born near Melrose in April 1782. He worked in his brother Hugh’s London ‘counting house’, then sold corn for brothers John and Hugh in Hawick, before opening his own hosiery business in Edinburgh. He moved to London and prospered, selling fashionable gloves, but then returned to Edinburgh around 1808 to take a share in a spirits business run by a Mr Dunlop.After five years, Usher had grown tired of all the social drinking demanded by his job, but it seems that finally he had found his forte, and in 1813 set up his own spirit merchant business, employing his brother-in-law James Fairbairn as traveller. Andrew Usher & Co was initially based at 6 Meadow Place, Edinburgh, then, in 1823, moved to 34 West Nicholson Street. Despite the company’s dramatic expansion during the second half of the century, its headquarters remained in Andrew Usher Senior’s old house in West Nicholson Street until the firm’s eventual take over in 1919. During the late 1820s Usher had a real breakthrough when John Smith of the Glenlivet Distillery contracted him as sole
agent. In 1840, a formal agreement was concluded which guaranteed the supply of 600 gallons of Glenlivet to Usher per month, along with the payment of commission on other sales.By the 1840s Usher was vatting casks of Glenlivet, perhaps influenced in his experimentation by the fact that this practice was already common in Cognac, where it produced notably consistent spirit. Andrew Usher had a large family of 12 children, and in 1831 he set up his two eldest sons, James and Thomas, in a brewery in Edinburgh’s Merchant Street. The firm later became known as Thomas Usher & Co, and for a century and a half the name of Usher was synonymous with fine Edinburgh ales.

Then, in 1848, Usher took on his two youngest sons, Andrew and John, as his partners in the whisky enterprise. Shortly before he died in 1855, Andrew Usher wrote “By the united exertions of my two sons the business during the last seven years has far exceeded anything it ever did before.” After his father’s death, Andrew Junior, then aged 29, took control of the company.In 1853 vatting under bond was legally permitted for the first time, and the firm launched Usher’s Old Vatted Glenlivet – the first ever commercial vatting to be marketed. It was possible to vat in order to obtain consistency between casks, but whiskies of different ages could also be vatted, raising many interesting possibilities for altering whisky profiles. By 1859 Andrew Usher & Co was prospering sufficiently to purchase its own malt distillery: Glen Sciennes in the Newington area of Edinburgh, which was renamed the Edinburgh Distillery.Blending under bond for domestic sales became legal as a result of the 1860 Spirits Act, and Usher’s Old Vatted Glenlivet became a true blend. According to Richard Paterson, “In 1860, having blended or vatted his respective malts under bond for many years, Usher now began to officially blend, only this time he was using grain and malt whiskies on a 50:50 ratio.”Along with Andrew Usher Junior, William Lowrie of Glasgow and Charles Mackinlay of Leith have also been credited with producing the earliest blends of malt and grain whisky. These blending pioneers recognised that it was not only cheaper to blend malt and grain but it produced a consistent drink perfectly suited to the ‘polite’ palate, and with this came expansion and great success. Andrew Usher & Co evolved from being a comparatively modest concern to an extremely profitable company in a short period, even pioneering sales of whisky to Japan during the 1880s.Usher was ideally placed to take advantage of the provisions of the 1860 Spirits Act. He had access to large quantities of Glenlivet and local supplies of Caledonian grain whisky in Edinburgh, while the purchase of the Edinburgh Distillery had almost certainly been planned to use its unremarkable Lowland style make for blending purposes.Writing in 1908, Andrew Usher Junior’s son, Sir Robert, claimed, regarding the success of blending in a commercial sense, that prior to 1860 sales of whisky in England were modest, but that after 1860 “… the trade in Scotch whisky increased in leaps and bounds.”In addition to developing the specific interests of his own company, Andrew Usher Junior was also one of the architects of the still-thriving North British grain distillery in Edinburgh – the last surviving whisky-making facility in the capital.Although only founded in 1877 as the amalgamation of six Lowland grain distilleries, the Distillers Company Ltd expanded rapidly. Indeed, within a few years DCL was large enough to pose a threat to other distillers, blenders, and merchants, and the notion of building a new ‘co-operative’ grain distillery to secure supplies of spirit for independent operators at a reasonable price was developed
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Leading the North British project was Andrew Usher, along with John Crabbie and William Sanderson, and in September 1887 the first spirit began to flow from the new plant. As was common with successful Victorian businessmen, philanthropy was important to Usher. Apparently, one day in 1896 Andrew Usher stood in James Aitchison’s jewellery shop on Princes Street in Edinburgh and said, “I have so much money I do not know what to do with it.”This was not a vulgar boast, however, and Usher immediately decided to donate the staggering sum of £100,000 (around £17.5m today) to the City of Edinburgh, to fund the construction of a ‘City Hall’, with the stipulation that it should seat 3,000 people. Usher wished the public to have a greater appreciation of good music, and the Usher Hall was to be a place where it could be played and enjoyed.Council squabbling regarding the most suitable location for the hall meant that it did not open to the public until 1914, 16 years after the death of its benefactor. It was built on Lothian Road and formally opened by Andrew Usher’s widow, Marion. Today, the Usher Hall remains Edinburgh’s premier concert hall, home to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.In another philanthropic act, Andrew’s brother John was responsible in 1902 for funding the Usher Health Institute, to teach public health in Edinburgh University. When the House of Usher finally lost its independence in 1919, it inevitably fell to the mighty Distillers Company Ltd, which was to swallow up so many of the firms that had banded together supporting the North British Distillery. The Edinburgh Distillery was sold to Scottish Malt Distillers in June 1919, and Andrew Usher & Co was subsequently merged with the DCL subsidiary J & G Stewart Ltd, whose name began to appear on Usher’s labels, as it still does to this day.Usher’s Green Stripe and Old Vatted Scotch are still produced by United Distillers & Vintners, but to try them, you may face a long journey. Green Stripe is the best-selling Scotch in Venezuela, and rarely surfaces outside of South America. The proceeds from the auction of the unique ‘blend of blends’ will be divided between leading students studying at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University and the Benevolent Society of the Licensed Trade of Scotland. The great blending pioneer and philanthropist in whose honour the bottling was produced would have wholeheartedly approved.
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